The Roadkill of the Web 2.0 Era!


Lately I’ve become be very interested in Web 2.0 with particular interest in Mashup development. Microformats, REST-based web services using RSS and/or Atom that empower mashup development, and Building APIs for the web. The concept that the web can finally start evolving into a programmable set of services and data instead of just electronic brochures and self-service applications really energizes me!


On the other hand, even though I am incredibly excited about this trend, I’m frustrated by how few companies are actually doing it!  Very few business people have thus far gotten that “Aha!” moment where they realize what so many technologists instinctively understand; the business benefits of opening up data and systems as web services on the Internet can be vast!


Even with such highly successful companies as Google and Yahoo freely sharing so much of their data via REST-based web services, and Amazon driving significant revenue1 from it’s pennies-per-transaction SOAP and REST-based web services, most business people I speak to either just don’t get it! Or worse, they are either scared to death of it or convinced it makes absolutely no sense!


Well all I can say is that old saw will definitely be true: “What you don’t know can hurt you!” The late majority to this game (and even some of the early majority) that continue not to get it, avoid it in fear, or just plain out deny it are going to become the Roadkill of the Web 2.0 Era





1 Significant for such an early stage

Simple technologies recombined, not technological breakthroughs, spur disruptive innovations

Clayton Cristensen's Book - The Innovator's Dillema

Yesterday when I blogged about simplicity I forgot to mention Clayton Christensen’s take on simple technology. Clayton’s ground-breaking book was entitled "The Innovator’s Dilemma" and is a must-read for any developer who wants to understand the business dynamics between market incumbency and innovative uses of technology.

From his extensive research Christensen states in The Innovator’s Dilemma that disruptive innovations are almost never the result of technological breakthroughs but are instead recombinations of existing and often inexpensive technology in forms the former market leaders don’t pursue. He states the driving reason for the market leaders ignoring disruptive innovations the people in their sales organizations fight against pursuing them because they don’t see big enough market opportunities and/or they can’t make large enough margins compared to their incumbent business. That is, until it’s too late.

Christensen defines disruptive innovations as those "innovations1 that allow small companies to topple once strong, market leading companies and establish themselves as market leaders. His first example was 8" disk drives manufacturers who put out of business all 14" disk drive manufacturers. The latter sold to mainframe vendors at 60% margins, and their customers were interested in larger capacity and faster drives, not in more expensive slower smaller drives with less capacity (which had to be sold at only 40% margins!) But mini-computer manufacturers purchased the 8" disk drives and over time the 8" disk drive manufacturers improved their products to the point of being good enough (key phrase) that mainframe vendors decided to buy from them rather the pay for the increasingly feature rich and increasingly expensive 14" disk drives.  At that point, with cost structures requiring 60% margins, the 14" disk drive manufacturers couldn’t maneuver and they all failed.

Examples of recent disruptive innovations with which you might be familiar are:

  • Open-source ASP.NET apps and .NET developer tools such as DotNetNuke in the content management space, and NUnit and related for testing tools. Both of these started out much more simple than commercial alternatives, but are evolving.
     
  • Simpler .NET components. Five years ago most components vendors were US-based. Today, the Internet has empowered many vendors outside the US to compete on price alone for the simpler components. One only need look at the number of the vast number of Internet Email Components for .NET to see this trend for what it is.
     
  • Small-project Outsourcing. Another trend near and not-so-dear to many developer’s hearts - outsourcing - is all about being able to offer development services for less. Look at places like RentACoder where you can have small projects developed for literally a tiny fraction of what it would cost to hire a developer in the US to do the same work (smart and entrepreneurial developers should see this as an opportunity rather than a problem…)  Today RentACoder’s projects are simple and inexpensive; tomorrow, who knows?
     
  • RSS vs. incredibly fragmented and expensive alternatives to content syndication; RSS is simply XML, after all.
     
  • Wikis, "The simplest thing that could possibly work" according to the Wiki’s inventor Ward Cummingham have edged out many commerical collaboration solutions, and most people say they do it better than what came before.
     
  • MySQL started out as a simple and basic alternative to Oracle, SQL Server, and DB2.  When you look at all the people who deployed early versions of MySQL because of its price (optionally free) instead of going with one of the big three, you realized that good enough really was an important concept at play. Now MySQL v5.0 is out and has stored procedures, triggers, views, and more. And if MySQL ever becomes good enough for everybody, Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM can’t compete at their margins.

I could go on, but those should be enough to help you understand the concept if my abstract description wasn’t enough.

Actually, if you think of another example, it would be cool if you would make a comment here and let me and my readers know about it!

 

1 - Also note that Christensen defined the term "innovation" to encompass a broader scope than just what we think of as technologies. He included business models as innovations too. 


Technologies are best when they are simple

What’s the next big thing? AJAX? Ruby on Rails? PC Virtualization? Open-Source Software? Data Security? Open Office File Formats? Windows Vista? Windows Live? Apple’s iWhatever? Yeah, all those things will get lots of hype, but the next big thing is something we’ve had access to all along:

Simplicity

Are my thoughts revolutionary? Nah, I’ve been reading about it at places like Information Week and the other usual suspects. Even Bill Gates at Microsoft gets it, through Ozzie at least (though execution will be the key.) But unlike all that gets hyped, simplicity as a concept that is for real.

Let’s look at two of the best known examples:

  1. Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.
  2. Really Simple Syndication.

Over the years, the world’s Internet email infrastructure evolved from that simple little mail transfer protocol (spam and all!) And RSS exploded as a method to syndicate blog posts in a very short order instead of one of the many complex content syndication concepts most of us never even heard of.

To most people the Internet came out of nowhere ten (10) years ago yet it evolved for at least twenty (20) years prior. The Internet’s foundation protocol TCP/IP isn’t exactly simple, but once the simple protocols HTTP and HTML were layered on top, Internet use exploded because implementing websites was simple (by comparison.)

But it’s not just simple technologies, its also simple to install and simple to use applications: ASCII text editors (i.e. Notepad), web browsers, email clients (w/apps like Outlook Express), instant messenger clients, wikis, blogging apps, online forum apps, and QuickBooks (simple is relative; accounting is required yet QuickBooks doesn’t really require accounting expertise.)

And to many people this simplicity makes sense. Scott Cook (founder of Intuit) got it. The founders of the original Instant Messenger (ICQ) got it. Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay) got it. Google gets it. The original author of PHP Ramus Lerdorf gets it. And a lesser known group also gets it; the developers of Basecamp (although 37 Signals could also be the poster child for when a group elevates a concept to an ideology, and like all ideologists, becomes blind and misinterprets the concept. But I digress…)

Okay this is all obvious, and well, it’s simple. So what’s the big deal? People recognize that simple is important but without a simple roadmap, most don’t know how (pun intended.) I don’t know that I can provide that roadmap, but at least I can get you started.

First, just for grins, let’s look at some counter examples:

  • MS-Access – Have you ever tried to develop an app is MS-Access? Yeah right.Access it pretty easy in where it allows you as a user to point and click, but once you hit its brick wall of end user functionality, you’ve got to be an Access guru to do anything more with it.
  • VB.NET – Thank god for the My namespace in VB 2005, albeit five years late, but VB.NET is still too damn difficult to use productively without weeks of learning.Don’t get me wrong, I love the power of VB.NET language, but it has very little transitionality.
  • ASP.NET – I know its blasphemy, but let’s be real: VIEWSTATE, __doPostBack(), Server Controls, @Register, @Import, WebForms, DataGrid, etc. etc. There’s so much complexity there, where does one start? It’s no wonder so many people still use ASP & VBScript.
  • Exchange Server – Oh my god! How complex a beast can you get? Most POP3/SMTP servers use files and directories; Exchange using some bastardization of an Access/Jet database that corrupts whenever the power fluctuates. And have you ever tried implementing server events?
  • SharePoint – I can’t even figure out SharePoint as a user, let alone as a developer. What was Microsoft thinking?
  • Active Directory – Need I say more?!?

I’ve bashed on Microsoft thus far, but let me not give them all the credit:

  • XML, though itself simple, has been complicated with namespaces which I’ve studying for literally years I but still can’t figure out how to use.
  • SOAP – Okay, Microsoft was heavily involved here. But why did they have to make web services so hard?I mean, what was wrong with HTTP POST?
  • J2EE – There’s a reason J2EE developers get paid the really big bucks.
  • Oracle – Have you ever tried to tune an Oracle database application?
  • Content Management Systems – Is there anything out that can pass for simple? I’ve been using DotNetNuke on one of my sites for a while and I can tell you, it isn’t.

This brings me to my key point. Aside from being intuitively obvious, what’s so great about simple?

The Benefits of "simple" are, quite simply:

  • For the User: Productivity
  • For the Platform Provider: Rapid and Widespread Adoption

But you say that all of my counter examples have widespread adoption?

Do not underestimate the institutional will of large organizations to implement tremendously complex technology, because they can.

On the other hand, departmental users, users in small businesses, college students, home users and more can’t deal with complex technology. If it’s too difficult, they don’t or can’t use it. And there are many, many more of them than there are large organizations. What’s more, large organizations are effectively made up of these small groups and individuals. Simple technologies benefit all.

Microsoft, with its Windows monopoly has been able to get away with complexity and consequent low user productivity and low platform adoption with many of its products for a long time. But with the new challenges from Google, SalesForce, et. al. they better get pragmatic religion, and they better get it fast.

And that roadmap to which I referred? To quote Albert Einstein:

As simple as possible, but not simpler

:-)

RSS Feeds Delivered to your Email Inbox, for Free!

I recently came across a free service I’ve been using for about a week, and I’m finding I really like it.

This free service is called RssFwd, as in "RSS Forward", and it’s totally simply to use. Just type an RSS URL into the text box on the RssFwd home page and click sumbit, then key in your email address and click submit again and you’re done!

And you don’t even have to remember a password to list or unsubscribe from your feeds; just follow one of the links provided in any email RssFwd sends you; nothing could be easier!

Highly Recommended!

 

RSS for Periodic Report Distribution?

I just had an epiphany!  (So everyone, go ahead and send me 50 links that I personally have yet to run across where others have already suggested this. :)

I’ve always wanted to review key numbers related to my company’s permformance on a periodic basis; i.e. each day, each week, and each month, etc.  I know this is needed by almost every person in almost every company. One method is to create an “intranet dashboard.“  But I find I am personally more projected-focused and don’t look at my dashboard consistently enough.  Another is to send an email, but then I have to “manage“ those emails in additional to all my other emails; yuck!

My epiphany was to create a single RSS feed for periodic report distribution.  When the report server generates the report, it would get pulled down by my SharpReader and a Outlook-style notification pop-up would tell me about it if I’m at the PC otherwise next time I look at my reader I’ll see the new report and be able to review it.  There would be no need for me to manage those reports because they’d all be on the feed and stay there until my configured expire date, which could be different for daily, weekly, and monthly reports.  If I wanted a report that had dropped off my reader, I’d just go run the report like I currently do today.

Implementation wise, there would just be an “item” table in a SQL Server database where generated reports would be dumped by scheduled tasks.  The item table could have a “category” field that would also allow subset feeds for each category.  Super simple.

Is this idea cool or what?  :-)  Maybe I should track down the SQL Server Reporting Services guys and ask them to consider for v1.1?  Or maybe some SQL Server guru somewhere could just write a custom output format and custom delivery target and publish an article somewhere?

RSS: No Apparent Advantage for a Tech Community Newsletter

I’m blogging today about an email conversation I had with the publisher of "TechLinks", an Atlanta-based email newsletter that, according to their website, "supports the fast pace of change within the Georgia technology community."   I’m going to relay the conversation and then ask your opinion: “Do you think RSS has benefit for TechLinks?“

Basically the TechLinks email goes out daily on business days. On Monday it provides a list of meetings and events, and the rest of the week it lists press releases from Georgia technology companies (click here to see an example.)  I’m subscribed to TechLinks because it occasionally has something important to me, but usually it doesn’t. Each day when TechLinks arrives in my inbox, I get this pained feeling of "do I really want to spend 5 minute of my attention to actually read this thing?"  It doesn’t help it is two to three pages long.  Usually I just delete it, but feel guilty because "maybe I missed something?" 

Since Scoble turned me onto blogging last month, I’ve notice lots of ways RSS, if used, could improve my everyday computing.  After returning from VSLive last month and swimming through my email inbox I had one of those epiphanies.  There were at least five daily issues of TechLinks, and I thought "Damn, in RSS format I could read it a lot faster using SharpReader, it wouldn’t clog my inbox, and I’d stress about missing something. After all, TechLinks is perfect for RSS because it’s a bunch titles with links to the TechLinks website."

So I shot off an email to the founder and editor of TechLinks Mike Adkinson suggesting:

Why don’t you turn this into an RSS feed?

I also thought it would help Mike if he had not considering offering RSS for TechLinks.  To my email I got a one word reply:

Why?

I thought it a bit rude so my reply back to Mike was admittedly was a bit sarcastic:

Uh, maybe so you won’t be the last content provider who isn’t?

Or maybe one of these people can say it better than me:
http://www.wired.com/news/rss
http://www.infoworld.com/rss/rss_info.html
http://news.yahoo.com/rss
http://www.microsoft-watch.com/article2/0,1995,1097192,00.asp
http://www.slais.ubc.ca/dlee/550/rss/whyuseit.htm
http://www.oreillynet.com/rss/
http://www.webreference.com/authoring/languages/xml/rss/
http://www.greatwesternpublishing.org/rss/rss.html
http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2002/12/18/dive-into-xml.html
(Also see: http://www.microsoft-watch.com/article2/0,1995,933657,00.asp)

Or maybe so I can actually READ your newsletter and not just delete it (RSS is much easier to read using a RSS reader like SharpReader [http://www.sharpreader.com] instead of read email newsletter.)

I never got a response. 

Yesterday I got another TechLinks and thought "Hmm, let me send another email with those RSS links I posted on my blog today." Here was my email:

Here is more about RSS (and why you should offer this email as an RSS feed):

 

http://msdn.microsoft.com/msdnmag/issues/04/04/XMLFiles/
http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rssVersionHistory

To that I did get a reply, probably to keep me from bugging him again:

I asked one of our people to explore this idea and the resulting message back to me was that we did not find where it offers a business advantage for us in any way that we could determine. It does take some effort and for reaching the audience that we want to serve, there was no apparent advantage.

Thanks for your suggestion and maybe someday there will be some kind of ROI for using RSS but for now, it does not seem to do anything for us.

I was floored!  This is the same TechLinks whose printed version received the Georgia Technology Leadership Award for Technology Public Service in October 2000. That award was created by the Office of the Governor to recognize outstanding technology leaders who have made a positive impact on the advancement of technology in Georgia. This doesn’t add up!

Other technology publications have already seen enough business advantages to implement RSS feeds. I won’t list many because it’s late and I’m tired, but I’ll list a few important ones:

Wired
InfoWorld
CNet
eWeek
PcMag
Though not a tech publisher, even Amazon is getting in the game!

I was so shocked and frustrated by Mike’s reply I replied quickly and extremely sarcastically (I was probably way out of line and wish I had not been sarcastic):

Really?

I do think it ironic that the people involved with the Atlanta newsletter labeled "TechLinks" aren’t able to recognize the most significant trend and groundswell since Mozilla combined http+html to create the web. Especially since it is so relevant to your business.

Oh well, to each his own.  Thanks for the reply.

If you are interested, here are two more articles:

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.04/start.html?pg=7
http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/81/blog.html

To which I got this reply:

I appreciated your initial suggestion but I object to the conclusion you reached. I did not say we did not think it was popular. I did not say that it was not good.  I did not say that we thought it insignificant.

I only said that at this time, we do not find a return for our business that warrants an investment of any resources.

You should try harder to understand the difference between our messages before making judgments.

I have no further interest in this conversation.

Okay….  Realizing it would only piss him off more if I continued, but also realizing my frustration created a need for me to apologize and to clarify my thoughts, I replied with:

Acknowledged.

But let me I apologize for my assertion as I did not intend to insult.

I really did not mean to say I thought you were unable to recognize the general trend, though that is what I stated. I was just so very surprised by your belief it was irrelevant to your current business I stumbled over my words.

That’s the end of it (thus far.)

Why would I blog about this? Blogging about an email could be viewed as a breach of implied trust, which normally I wouldn’t do. However, this was not a personal dialog but unsolicited suggestions from someone Mike Adkinson did not know. I’m sure Mike as a professional writer knows not to send something in email he wouldn’t want to see as a front page headline for, say, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that context, I thought it fair game.

I didn’t intend this to ridicule Mike Adkinson’s business or technology acumen. I’m sure he’s busy running TechLinks and just hasn’t had time to realize how relevant is RSS. Similarly there have been many times I now wish someone had slapped me and made me pay attention. A former Xtras employee Glen Gordon had to almost literally scream at me to get me to pay attention to this new thing called a "Browser" and "The Web!" (Glen is now a .NET evangelist for Microsoft.)

Further, I didn’t intend this as a critique of Mike’s email responses. I’m sure I would be horrified if I only knew the number of times a customer has viewed one of my email replies as rude or frustrating. In this information overloaded world, we all do it. "Let he who is innocent cast the first stone."

Instead I wanted to ask: “Do you agree with my assertion that RSS is completely relevant to TechLinks? If so, maybe you would email Mike Adkinson [[email protected]] to let him know why implementing RSS would be valuable to him, especially if he could be somewhat an early adopter?  And you could let him know how simple RSS is to implement. I’m sure he won’t be as harsh with you as he was with me.

If he does implement RSS, he’ll thank us all down the road; I’m sure of it.  And if he does it will reduce my email clutter by just a tiny bit more. :-)

RSS Version History

I found that Don Box referenced a couple of great RSS version histories at Harvard and Microsoft.  I’m blogging about them so I personally can find them next time I want to read them. :)

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